By Ibar Quirke
The canonisation of Mother Teresa on September 4th this year was an occasion of much rejoicing throughout the world. A champion of the poor and vulnerable, her gentleness and her charisma inspired many people.
A lesser-known figure, however, is that of Irma Dulce, dubbed the ‘Mother Teresa of Brazil’.
Born Maria Rita de Souza Pontes in Salvador de Bahia on May 26th, 1914, into a family of wealth and prestige, she seemed destined for the life of a socialite. However, such was not to be her fate; rather her path was to be one of service to the people she encountered in the slums of Bahia.
On her 18th birthday, Maria Rita de Souza Pontes entered the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God. She was influenced by the lives of saints Francis and Clare, and by her parents, Augustino and Dulce, who taught her to be attentive to the poor.
Maria completed a course in general nursing during her novitiate-year. She asked permission to take her mother’s name on the day of her Profession. Rare at this time for newly-professed sisters to choose their own-religious-names, the Revd Mother granted this request.
Sent first to the district of Alagados, she gained an angelic reputation due to her sensitivity and prayerfulness. In 1939, the Angel of Alagados, as she became known, was sent to Ilha dos Ratos – a place feared and despised for its crime, violence and hopelessness.
Even though Irma Dulce was disappointed to leave the people of Alagados, she recognised her vocation was in the slums amongst the despised. Many men tried to win her favours but Irma Dulce was known for sending them off with forthrightness.
Her work in Ilha dos Ratos inspired many people to initiate similar projects in other administrative districts in Brazil. The Charitable-Works Foundation of Sr Dulce was inaugurated on May 26th, 1959. Still in existence throughout Brazil, this organisation serves people by providing education and catechetical programmes, health-care, parish-ministry and social-activism.
As news of her good work spread throughout Brazil, people began to compare her to Mother Teresa. Other countries began to apply the philosophy of Irma Dulce to people in need of moral and material aid. Pope John-Paul II passionately supported Irma Dulce and her work.